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Learning To Forgive In Divorce

Suppose your settlement or trial results are exactly what you wanted. You have the parenting plan you desired. You are paying or receiving the support you thought was the fair amount. Now that the divorce is done, what are you going to do next?

As a divorce client, more often than not, the divorce process will consume you giving you very little time to process the divorce. During that time, you may become very angry, bitter and resentful of your ex-spouse. Sometimes anger forms because you expected your ex-spouse to act in a certain way. You might have said things like, “he should have,” “she failed to,” and “he should never have.” Imposing unrealistic expectations, you likely held your ex-spouse to standards that he or she was doomed to fail, and continue to do so during the divorce. When they do fail, it only feeds your forming anger and frustration, which can quickly over power you.

Divorce is hurtful. Often divorcees suffer deep hurt from a spouse’s betrayal, failure to work on the marriage, or inability to forgive the other’s wrongs. And even with a big win at settlement or trial, or a peaceful and agreeable mediated agreement, the anger and hurt is still there.

Although anger has the appearance of making you feel powerful, it will leave you frustrated and powerless. Anger can be the source of more pain, resentment and bitterness. Forgiveness, on the other hand, has the power to release you from the anger and stop the cycle of pain. When you forgive, you give yourself the chance to move past the hurt to a healthy future. You offer yourself the chance to heal.

You might be wondering how can you forgive your spouse, if s/he hasn’t apologized? Or why you should even forgive your very faulty ex-spouse? These are common misconceptions about forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean you condone your ex-spouse’s behavior or can only forgive your ex-spouse if s/he apologized. In reality, forgiveness is often more about you than your ex-spouse.

By holding onto anger, you allow your ex-spouse to control your future happiness. You become a victim to that anger. Without forgiving, you are caught in cyclic hatred. For example, you might seek revenge, resulting in escalated tension and anger between you and your ex-spouse. Forgiveness frees you from escalation and from the bondage of anger. It gives you an opportunity to free yourself from your past. [1]

It’s hard to know how to forgive or what to forgive, especially when all you can feel is anger towards your ex-spouse. There are some steps you can execute to assist you in forgiving your ex-spouse.

First, identify what specific act caused you to be angry at your ex-spouse. Was it an affair? Was it her inability to listen to you? Was it his failure to pursue his career in the manner he promised?

Be careful. We often add injustices to an ex-spouse’s wrong because it makes us feel better. Our ex-spouse becomes so very wrong and we become so very right. Prevent yourself from doing this. It will only further you from your goal to forgive your ex-spouse. Remind yourself of reality and do not focus on trivial matters. Don’t try to keep score of who hurt whom and who caused the most injury. Remember this is about letting go, not weighing wrongs.

Next, once you have identified the act, identify what this means to you. Did the affair make you feel unloved? Did you feel disrespected because she did not listen to you? Or did you feel uncared for because he did not pursue his career to provide for you and the children?

Third, can you explain the act causing you to be angry? Keep in mind, understanding why the behavior occurred is not the same as excusing the behavior. Forgiveness means separating forgivable people from unforgivable actions. [2] With an explanation, you can more easily separate the offender from the offense once the offense is put into perspective. Consider whether you had a role and what it was. You must be able to put your pride aside or you will find it difficult to forgive. You will find yourself adding trivial wrongs against your ex-spouse rather than understanding why the offense requiring forgiveness took place.

Now that you have identified the act, your reaction and the possible reasons, you must decide whether you wish to forgive your spouse. At the most fundamental level, forgiveness is a heart process. It begins with a personal desire to be released from the past. [3] Are you willing to let go of the past and no longer hold on to resentment? You have to make the decision whether or not you will begin this journey.

Forgive Yourself

As you venture through the forgiveness process, do not forget that you might need to forgive yourself. You may feel guilty because you blame yourself for the failed marriage, or feel at fault for failing your children. You are entitled to forgive yourself. In the same manner you extended forgiveness to your ex-spouse, you need to forgive yourself. Acknowledge your wrong, explain why you did the wrong, and allow it to remain in the past. You are no longer subject to that offense.

Give Yourself Time

Forgiveness also takes time. [4] You might start the process today, but have to work the process daily, in your mind, emotions, and soul, before you have finally released the grudge you are holding. The effort will be worth it. It’s time to let it go.

End Notes


2 Robin Wellford Slocum, A Farewell to Arms: Disarming the Vengeful Client, 92 MARQ.L.REV. 3, 42. Available at

3 Cloke, supra note 10, at 87-107.

4 Lewis B. Smede, FORGIVE AND FORGET, 95 (Harper Collins 1984).


Dina Haddad

Dina Haddad is a family law mediator and principal of Families First Mediation.  She is a Judge Pro Tempore for the Personal Property Arbitration in Santa Clara County. She received her LL.M. in Alternate Dispute Resolution from Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine School of Law and a Juris… MORE >

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